New Rep's "Oleanna": Rashomon Test

Obehi Janice &  Johnny Lee Davenport in "Oleanna"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

David Mamet's plays can be very frustrating when he continually fails to finish his-
It can be exhausting having to fill in the-
It's sort of like seeing a Pinter play without the British-
And the staccato delivery his prose requires can be monotonous when-
So one has to keep up with the sporadic dialog that-

Oleanna by David Mamet was both product and precursor of its time, and probably should be seen and heard in that context. Yet the issues the play raised then remain unresolved today and continue to effect the way we employ survival techniques in our current society. Both Hollywood and Washington provide modern templates for a contemporary revisit to the work's gender and power battlegrounds. At New Rep in Watertown, Director Elaine Vaan Hogue attempts to do just that. A clue to what's going to transpire is in Mamet's choice of title, from a satirical song made popular by Pete Seeger, based on the failed concept of a utopian society (Oleanna being one of four proposed towns) in Pennsylvania envisioned by a Norwegian violinist.

Any appearance by Obehi Janice, or Johnny Lee Davenport, automatically qualifies as worthy theater; an appearance by these two fine actors on the same stage makes for must-see theater, no matter the play. The fact that the play is one by Mamet written around the time of actual events such as the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas two-hander provides still more reason to attend this tale, given the current political state of affairs. While the play itself was written twenty-five years ago, sexual politics are unfortunately still alive and unwell in our society, so a revisit to this work should prove enlightening at the very least.

Obehi Janice & Johnny Lee Davenport in "Oleanna"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The underbelly of the play, as is typically true with Mamet, is power. It may seem to be about the politically correct and the perception of reality from differing points of view, but make no mistake about it, the professor John (Davenport) and his student Carol (Janice) experience more than a mere misunderstanding or polarized inherent views of misogyny or feminism. With the incisiveness that one also has come to expect from Mamet, this time comes a reversal of those pivotal viewpoints, in one act heavy-loaded in one direction, in another the stark opposite, reminiscent of the film Rashomon or the song Someone in a Tree from Sondheim's musical Pacific Overtures. Is this bias or selective memory?

Mamet as usual provides little or no exposition; he has gone on record as concerned with the question of “What does the protagonist want...that's what drama is...what gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how at the end of the play do we see that event culminated. Do we see the protagonist's wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That's the structure of drama”. There are other playwrights who share these concepts, but most of them provide a blueprint. Mamet, here and elsewhere, offers an opportunity for actors to shine, and both these actors do. Under Vaan Hogue's keen direction, Davenport excels in the less showy role, while Janice once again proves her astonishing range and depth. Aiding them are the Scenic Design by James F. Rotondo III (clever in its suggestion of a boxing ring), while the Costume Design by AJ Jones mirrors the actors' changing roles, and the precise Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus are equally contributive.
You may share their verbal bouts through November 5th, but one might do well to move with haste, as before one knows it, the run of the show will be-

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